Awestruck by Nature in the “Smoky” Mountains

A friend recently told me that they’d been living in Asheville for several years when one day, on the way home, they looked in their rearview mirror, caught sight of the silhouette of the Blue Ridge Mountains that dominates almost all our skylines and had the epiphany that yes, the Blue Ridge Mountains are called The Blue Ridge Mountains because their silhouettes against the sky look like blue ridges. 

I thought about this the other day as I drove up the Blue Ridge Parkway on one of our first warm spring days and noticed that the sky was remarkably hazy for a non-summer day, and thought to myself, “Is this why they call them the Great Smoky Mountains?” 

I hiked the Black Balsam, Tennant Mountain loop, a favorite post-work hike I’ve done numerous times since moving to Asheville. 

On my way back down the parkway a few hours later, once I got service again, I stopped at one of the Parkway overlooks closer to town and did some light Googling about what gives the Smoky Mountains their name.

Google informed me that this haze, or fog, or…smoke, is precisely why the Smoky Mountains are called the Smoky Mountains. While I was technically in the Blue Ridge and not the Smokies, there are sweeping views into Tennesee, where I was hiking, so it all made sense! I texted me friend to tell him I’d just had my own blue-ridge-mountain-moment.

He replied with the following WLOS story: “Burn planned for Pisgah District continues; Smoke may be visible in Mills River, Asheville.” I was sitting doing my research at the Mills River Overlook, and as I got out of my car to snap a few pictures, I felt even dumber to see there was a sign just off the overlook I’d missed on my drive up that warned of “Smoky conditions today.”

I wanted to snap a couple of pictures of the controlled burn if I could catch it, as per the story I’d just read, it should’ve been happening down in the valley just below me. Low and behold, there it was. I took some photos, but they didn’t come out well because of the limited visibility…

Fires fascinate me. They’ve never been a threat when I lived in Pennsylvania, and I guess I didn’t realize how prevalent they are until I moved down here. One of my favorite hikes, Linville Gorge’s Shortoff Mountain, is still scarred by the remnants of a somewhat recentish fire, and I’d selfishly argue that my hiking experience is better for it. Per an article from the Gaston Gazette

“Twenty years ago, a hiker making his way to the summit of Shortoff was surrounded by the lush forests that are a hallmark of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Now, a trek to the top is through a landscape almost lunar in its sense of barren desolation.”

The "lunar" landscape of Shortoff Mountain.
The “lunar” landscape of Shortoff Mountain.

The lunar landscape and views it affords are part of what makes the Shoftoff Mountain hike so enchanting. However, a stop at Skinny Dip Falls on my way back from Black Balsam, just before my Smoky-Mountain epiphany, was a crash course in how nature often does not give a shit about my views. 

Skinny Dip Falls was one of the most popular swimming holes in the immediate Asheville area, and for good reason. It had gorgeous waterfalls and several crystal clear swimming holes for jumping, swimming, or the titular skinny dipping. Here are some photos I took of Skinny Dip Falls over the past two years:

Western North Carolina experienced devastating flooding last August in conjuncture with Tropical Storm Fred, and I’d seen various hiking blogs/All Trails accounts mention that Skinny Dip Falls, as it was known, was completely wiped out. Those reports aren’t exaggerated. 

Here’s a photo  I took of Skinny Dip Falls on my recent trip. 

The staircase that takes you down to the falls is just a collection of boards. The bridge crossing the stream is washed away. The saddest part is that while there are still small falls taking the river down the mountain, the swimming pools and the larger falls have been completely washed away. It’s also a steep scramble to get down to the river, which is inundated with small boulders. It’s an impressive reminder of the damage nature can wreak, and part of me is sort of jealous I wasn’t able to see it happen.

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